The stories behind five remarkable Christmas cards



2017-12-18 13:30:14

More than a billion Christmas cards are sent out each year, and it's fair to say they all have a tale attached to them, one way or another.

But here are five cards with remarkable stories to tell - from rock star debauchery to the death of a President...

Ella Fitzgerald's card to Marilyn Monroe

(Image: Julien

(Image: Julien's Auctions)

This undated Hallmark Christmas card was signed and sent by one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald.

It was sent to one of her biggest fans, who also happened to be the world's most famous woman – Marilyn Monroe.

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, America's strict racial segregation laws meant that black musicians and performers such as Fitzgerald were banned from playing to white audiences in many states.

They were also hassled, abused and even arrested as they toured the U.S – but in Fitzgerald's case, she had an unknown friend in a high place, that helped her break through the color barrier.

Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe

Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe

In later years, she recalled the influence Monroe had on her career:

"I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt … she personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him...that the press would go wild.

"The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it."

This Christmas card illustrates the bond between these two pioneering female performers, and obviously meant a lot to Monroe, as it remained in her personal collection until she died in 1962.

More than half a century later, it sold at Julien's Auctions in 2016 for $1,875.

John Lennon's 'Lost Weekend' Christmas card

(Image: Julien

(Image: Julien's Auctions)

Who's that peering out from beneath the Queen's dress? It's John Lennon, and he was certainly having a merry Christmas in 1974.

It might seem a particularly rowdy card, coming from the man who sang the peace-loving 'Happy Xmas (War is Over)' just two years previously.

But then again, Lennon was in a particularly rowdy mood when he sent it, during an 18-month period in his life he called the 'Lost Weekend'.

In the summer of 1973 Lennon and Yoko Ono separated, and Lennon began a relationship with their assistant May Pang (at Ono's suggestion).

The new couple moved to Los Angeles, and Lennon began a series of alcohol-fuelled projects that involved half the musicians in Hollywood.

May Pang and John Lennon during his 18-month

May Pang and John Lennon during his 18-month 'Lost Weekend'

Phil Spector was invited to produce an album of rock 'n' roll classics, then began firing guns in the recording studio and kidnapped all the master tapes; then Lennon decided to produce an album by Harry Nilsen, and the pair developed a reputation for causing chaos in drinking establishments across town.

But it wasn't all debauchery. During this time Lennon also scored his only solo U.S #1 single with 'Whatever Gets You Thru the Night', reunited with his estranged son Julian, reportedly saw a U.F.O, and rebuilt bridges with Paul McCartney.

Lennon eventually returned to New York and reunited with Yoko Ono in early 1975, but was known privately to look back on his 'Lost Weekend' with fondness.

He later told journalist Larry Kane "I may have been the happiest I've ever been... I loved this woman, I made some beautiful music and I got so f* up with booze and shit and whatever."

This personal card was one of the few signed as a couple and sent out together by Lennon and May Pang during the period, and in 2013 it sold at Julien's Auctions for $1,024.

JFK's last Christmas card

(Images: Heritage Auctions)

(Images: Heritage Auctions)

Like most U.S Presidents, John F. Kennedy had an exceptionally long Christmas card list each year, and 1963 was no exception.

To save time he had the majority of his cards (approx. 1,500) printed with facsimile signatures. But 1964 was an election year, and he knew some cards would need a personal touch.

To that end he also ordered a further 700 cards without signatures, which he planned to sign by hand and send to his closest friends, supporters and political allies.

It was a long and arduous task, but one that needed completing before heading down to the Kennedy family compound for Thanksgiving.

On November 18 Kennedy returned to the White House following a trip to Florida, and over the next two days he sat down with Jackie to start signing the cards together.

However, they managed to complete less than 70 before setting off for the airport on the morning of November 21, on their way to San Antonio, Texas.

It was only meant to be a quick campaign visit, and the rest of the cards could wait until they got home.

Twenty-four hours later the President was dead, and the cards were never sent. 

The existence of these dual-signed cards was unknown even to the Kennedy Library until the mid-1980s.

Today examples can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian and the White House, along with a few that remain in private hands.

This highly rare example sold at Heritage Auctions in 2015 for $9,687, and serves as a stark reminder of one of America's darkest holiday seasons in living memory.

Lee Harvey Oswald's Soviet Christmas card

(Image: Heritage Auctions)

(Image: Heritage Auctions)

Two years previously, the man responsible for that dark holiday season was sending cards of his own.

Lee Harvey Oswald defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959, telling the authorities that he was a Communist who wished to renounce his American citizenship.

However, he soon realized that life behind the Iron Curtain wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

The Soviet government allowed him to stay in the country, due in part to his background as a former U.S Marine and the information he might supply.

He was given a job at a television factory in Minsk, a subsidized apartment in a prestigious building, and had it good compared to most Soviet citizens (even though he remained under constant surveillance).

But for Oswald, his political idealism soon began to struggle beneath the weight of reality in his new life.

Earlier that year he had written in his diary: "I am starting to reconsider my desire about staying. The work is drab, the money I get has nowhere to be spent. No nightclubs or bowling alleys, no places of recreation except the trade union dances. I have had enough."

Lee Harvey Oswald and Marina Oswald in Minsk

Lee Harvey Oswald and Marina Oswald in Minsk

However, it was at one of these dances that he met a 19-year-old pharmacology student named Marina Prusakova, and the pair married in April 1961, having known each other for just a month.

They were both desperate to leave the Soviet Union, and Oswald began appealing to the American Embassy – who were less than eager to allow him to return.

In December 1961, believing their chance to leave was over, the couple sent this Christmas card to Oswald's mother Marguerite in Fort Worth, Texas.

It was signed "Merry Christmas, Dear Mother, from us both. Lee", and included Marina Oswald's signature in Cyrillic.

Less than a week later Oswald's frustrations boiled over, and he was fired from his factory job due to unsatisfactory work and a negative attitude.

But on December 25, a true Christmas miracle arrived – in the form of official passports and exit visas. For whatever reason, the Soviets had decided to let Oswald return to the U.S with his now-pregnant wife, and they within a few months they were following their Christmas card back to Texas.

The rest, as they say, is history.

This card was later used during the Warren Commission investigation into the assassination of JFK, and sold at Heritage Auctions in 2008 for $6,572.

The world's first Christmas card

(Image: Bonhams)

(Image: Bonhams)

Here's the card that started it all, almost 175 years ago.

Sir Henry Cole was a prominent civil servant, educator and inventor, who helped reform the British postal service and introduce the penny post in 1840.

He was an exceedingly busy man, and in December 1843 he realised that writing his annual list of Christmas letters was the last thing he needed.  

To save time and effort, he came up with the idea of a card, pre-printed with the season's greeting, that he could simply sign and send out.

He then commissioned J.C. Horsley, an artist renowned for his portraits of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, to design the card.

The illustration featured three generations of the Cole family raising a festive toast, and included the motto "A merry Christmas and a happy new year to you".

Sir Henry then had 1,000 cards printed up, sent copies to all his friends and family, and offered the rest for sale at a shilling a piece (because he was also a businessman with an eye for an opportunity).

Sir Henry Cole - the man who invented the Christmas card as we know it

Sir Henry Cole - the man who invented the Christmas card as we know it

Although the cards proved too expensive for most, and weren't particularly successful, Christmas traditions were changing in Britain, and Cole was simply ahead of his time.

Prince Albert had already begun importing German fir trees to decorate the Royal palaces, and by 1845 people around the country were following suit.

Christmas celebrations became more lavish throughout the decade, and when the second commercially-printed card appeared on the market in 1848, the public began sending them in the tens of thousands.  

Today it's believed that around 20 examples of Cole's original Christmas card remain in existence.

Most are held in museums and public archives, with few in private hands, but occasionally they appear on the open market – as this one did in 2005, when it sold at Bonhams for £4,700 ($6,263).

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